When the news hit that the Tampa Bay Rays’ best pitcher, Cy Young Award winner David Price, had been traded to the Detroit Tigers, there was collective groan from many of my friends. A few expressed anger by way of their Facebook postings.
Price, being the classy guy he is, took out full-page ads in the local newspapers thanking the team and the fans for his years here. He seemed resigned to the fact that small-market teams getting rid of their best players is now the norm in baseball.
One guy on Facebook, who goes to many Rays games, saw the Price trade as just one more example of why the team needs a new ballpark. “They won’t really be competitive until they get out of the Trop,” he wrote.
Competitive? The Rays have been the envy of many general managers because of their ability to field playoff teams with one of the smallest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Which begs the question: Would a new ballpark have kept David Price in St. Petersburg?
For as long as there have been talks of the need to replace Tropicana Field, the word “competitive” has been thrown around pretty liberally, suggesting it was the only way for the Rays to field a good team and compete with division rivals New York and Boston, which has proven to be nonsense. It’s also a tacit way to appeal to local officials about the need for public help building a new facility.
But I don’t think it’s reasonable to think the Rays could ever keep up with the Yankees and their ability to attract free agents and keep good players from leaving. Teams in big markets seem to be coming up with new ways to generate revenue, mostly from cable TV deals.
As it stands, Oakland, Pittsburgh and the Rays all managed to make the playoffs last year despite having three of the five lowest payrolls in baseball. Of the teams with the 10 highest payrolls last year, only three made it to the postseason: Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit.
This weekend, the Rays are playing in century-old Wrigley Field in Chicago. The new owner of the Cubs, a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century, has connected their lack of competitiveness in recent years to the inability to produce the revenue other teams are seeing.
“Being unable to improve our park puts us in the hole by tens of millions of dollars a year,” said owner Tom Ricketts on a video posted on the team’s website.
Take it from someone who has been going to Cubs games since he was 8 years old, the Cubs’ problems have nothing to do with Wrigley Field, which most baseball fans consider a shrine. It has to do with poor trades, bad free-agent signings and a farm system that hasn’t panned out. A renovated ballpark will do nothing to overcome dumb moves.
And let’s not forget the Red Sox won it all last year playing in Fenway Park, which is older than Wrigley Field.
The Rays and A’s have shown what is needed to field a competitive product: Fill the team with a bunch of good players instead of signing one superstar for $240 million and surrounding him with a bunch of average teammates — which is why some large-market teams perform poorly. The tough part is holding on to players when they are eligible to become free agents, and teams like the Rays will continue to lose them to richer teams, with or without a new ballpark.
Like I said, that’s just today’s reality. Get used to it.